From the Archives: Ruby Payne-Scott, pioneer of Radio Astronomy

In “From the Archives,” I bring back some of the posts from my earlier blogs.

This one was written in March 2009 in celebration of Ada Lovelace Day and women in science. I had first heard of Payne-Scott from Miller Goss, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory when I was an undergraduate research intern. Since then, Ruby Payne-Scott has received wider notoriety, including a Google Doodle for her 100th birthday. You can read all about her in the 2013 book by Goss, Making Waves: The Story of Ruby Payne-Scott: Australian Pioneer Radio Astronomer.

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, where bloggers have pledged to write about their favorite woman in technology, I am compelled to share a little bit of the story of Ruby Payne-Scott.  It is only in the last few years, due in large part to NRAO scientist Miller Goss, that her great story has come to light.  I’ve twice seen talks by Miller on the extraordinary life of this woman, and hope to see what more information they uncover about her in the future!

a black and white photograph of a young Ruby Payne-Scott

CC BY-SA 3.0 Peter Hall

Ruby was born in New South Wales, Australia, in 1912, and showed extraordinary talents for math and science.  She had to break away from her family in order to pursue her studies, in a headstrong and confident way that seems to have influenced much of her life’s path. Graduating college in the middle of the Depression, it was difficult to find work, let alone as a female physicist, but she had a lucky break with Britain’s, and thus Australia’s, involvement in World War II.

Ruby was one of three women that worked for CSIR, the Australian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, on radio physics, or radar research.  She deliberately broke rules for women’s dress code and smoking, always demanding equal respect and treatment.  And with tight budgets, hands-on work, and difficult problems to solve, she was indeed treated as “one of the boys” in her research lab.

Black and white photo of three people standing outside a small trailer. See caption for details.

Ruby Payne-Scott, Alec Little (middle) and “Chris” Christiansen at the Potts Hill Reservoir Division of Radiophysics field station in about 1948. ATNF Historical Photographic Archive – B14315. CC-BY-3.0 Jessica Chapman.

As the war was ending, one of Ruby’s collaborators, Joe Pawsey, decided to use the old military equipment and take a stab at the young, mysterious field of radio astronomy. Karl Jansky’s discovery of radio waves from the galaxy had attracted little notice from the astronomical community in the 1930’s, but Grote Reber had begun to publish his own maps of the Milky Way with his home-grown radio telescope in 1944.  CSIR took a leap in funding the pioneering efforts of radio astronomers after the war, and Ruby was at the forefront. She was involved in investigations of solar flares and the radio emissions from them, which in the near future may be used to warn of incoming solar storms that threaten our technological infrastructure.

Ruby was a brilliant scientist pioneering a brand new field. But since radio astronomy was not yet published in journals, her findings would go largely unnoticed for decades. Also, her career as a researcher was short-lived.  Ruby again bucked the establishment by making no secret about the fact that she was living with a man, Bill Hall, in the 1940’s. However, it soon came out to her colleagues that she was indeed married to Hall.  She kept the marriage a secret since the Commonwealth would not keep in full-time employment a married woman.  Her collaborators respected her as a scientist and friend and kept working with her just the same, but when she was pregnant with her first child in 1951, she resigned. The CSIR would have gladly hired her back to continue her research at full pay, but as a temporary employee, like all other married women at the time.

Ruby Payne-Scott focused her mind on her family, and her children fondly remember her as a loving mother and wife. She later became a schoolteacher, greatly admired by her students who never knew of her earlier scientific achievements.  In 1981, Ruby died at the age of 68 with Alzheimer’s disease, under the loving watch of her husband.

Read more about this amazing woman in a transcript of a 2004 “Science Show” on ABC Australia. Her biography Under the Radar: Ruby Payne-Scott, the first Woman Radio Astronomer by Miller Goss and Richard McGee is set to be released later this year.

When needed, I’ve replaced missing links with the Wayback Machine version. The 2009 book mentioned just above is also available, though it is more at a textbook price point than the later book.